philly history

Former prison has housed non-profits over the years

You're not going to believe this, but we have a story about a property in the vicinty of Temple University that doesn't involve student housing. We were up in that neck of the woods earlier today, and as we were meandering about the neighborhood, an old building with a historic marker caught our attention. At 1901 W. Oxford St. stands a building that was originally built as a prison or perhaps a police station, but has been used by non-profits in recent decades. In 1961, according to Phillyhistory, the building was sitting empty.

View in 1961

Amazingly, the building was not demolished, but gifted by the City to the Opportunities Industrialization Center, a non-profit dedicated to fighting poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment. Somewhere along the line, OIC moved its offices to North Broad Street, and a sign appeared on the front of the building that it would soon be the home of another non-profit, the Sultan Jihad Ahmad Community Foundation. This organization is all about youth services and combatting youth violence, and we're pretty sure that the organization has moved into the building even though it's still undergoing some renovation.

Will it be renovated? Demolished? Declared historic?

Though we've visited South Kensington on countless occasions, we don't think we ever found ourselves on the 1200 block of N. Hancock Street. So when a reader reached out, mentioning that a church at 1217-23 N. Hancock St. had recently changed hands, we couldn't even picture the building. When we actually made our way to the property, we couldn't see it very well because of the foliage out front.

The church

Closer look, in the shadows

Thanks to an old Loopnet listing, we can show you what this place looks like when the trees are not in bloom.

This could be huge for the neighborhood

Brewerytown is picking up speed. West Girard continues to improve incrementally, with a new place from the Pizza Brain guys coming soon. Developers are building new homes and renovating vacant buildings at an accelerating pace. MM Partners is doing their thing. Ditto Westrum, with over a hundred new apartment units across two projects in the last couple of years. And now, one of the big dogs in the neighborhood, the old Red Bell Brewery at 1500 N. 31st St., has changed hands. This should mean that redevelopment is on the horizon. 

Wonderful building would make for an interesting home

Even though we once lived just a few blocks away, we somehow never encountered 808-10 Morris St., a handsome old building that was once home to the Engine 10 Fire Company. According to, the building was constructed in 1874 and was home to the fire company until 1953, when they moved to their current location on 12th Street between Wharton and Reed. Thankfully, the building has survived for more than half a century since its original use was discontinued.

The building

As for what happened to the building between the 1950s and the 1990s, we surely don't know. We can tell you that in the last fifteen years or so, the building has gone through some drama, changing hands repeatedly. The original garage opening has been partially filled in, with steps leading up to a door. Sometime between 1998 and 2009, one of the owners converted the building into a single-family home but they weren't able to finish the job. In 2010, the finished product was listed for $525K but the owners never did finish the construction. In 2012, new investors stepped in and listed the building back on the market in 2014. Today, there's a dreaded Stop Work Order on the front door.

Many of the original details remain

The building at 818 Chestnut St. is a somewhat forgotten though surprisingly well-preserved Center City landmark. Evidence abounds in the building’s art deco facade to suggest that this was, indeed, a fashionable destination in the early 20th Century and one that redefined the dining experience for thousands of Philadelphians. But let’s rewind a bit first. According to Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, this spot was host to Thomas W. Evans & Co. Dry Goods in the mid-19th Century. Here below, Philadelphia Architects provides us with a sketch of the establishment in 1851.

Thomas W. Evans & Co. Dry Goods, 1851

By 1875, a newly constructed building now listed at 818 Chestnut St. was occupied by one Charles Pierson and stood in the shadow of the Continental Hotel. Pierson’s occupancy of the structure is evidenced both by its Pierson Building alias and the image here below taken from G.M. Hopkins’ 1875 Philadelphia Atlas.

The intersection of 13th & Locust has long been a thriving and commercially dense area.  However, our interest is with a corner at which very little of great importance seemed to take place prior to the 20th century.  The image here below, taken from G.W. Bromley’s 1895 Philadelphia Atlas, shows a southeast corner without an occupant notable enough to warrant identification on the map. 

The nondescript southeast corner of 13th & Locust, 1895

Though a lack of cartographic information on this corner would continue well into the early 1900s, there is some photographic documentation.  An image taken from the Department of Records shows the corner in 1917, occupied by what appears to be a combination business office and residential establishment. 

Probably a combination office/residential building, 1917

The relatively modest building shown above would soon be dramatically upgraded with the construction of a new home for the Philadelphia Real Estate Board. Philadelphia Architects and Buildings tells that this first noteworthy inhabitant of the corner was probably inserted around 1922.  The image below, taken from the same site, is dated to the mid-1920s and shows the far larger and more modern structure now in place.

Nice residential conversion

In the late 1800s, North Broad Street was a collection of retail outlets, residences and industrial use-buildings.  The small stretch of Broad between Wood and Pearl Streets is a perfect demonstration of this mix.  The photo below, taken from the Philadelphia Department of Records shows the East side of this stretch in 1895. 

Assorted retail and industrial buildings occupying 315-321 N. Broad St., 1895

Like much of the surrounding North Broad Street area, the block would spend the early part of the 20th Century dedicated to the proliferation of America’s auto industry.  As the nation’s love affair with the automobile continued to evolve, the industrialized area just above City Hall proved highly conducive to its maturation.  As the image here below, taken from G.W. Bromley’s 1910 Philadelphia Atlas, shows, the site in question was simply identified as a Motor Shop. 

We're guessing homes will follow

Recently we noticed a dumpster in front of some rough looking buildings on 4th Street, just south of Dickinson Square Park. We asked the guys working on the property what's going on, and they informed us that they're demolishing the structures we see today. A peek at the L&I Map confirmed this.

Looking down 4th Street

Six years ago, developers purchased 1709-17 S. 4th St., several of the buildings you see pictured above, including the one-story "Antiques" garage and the double-wide three story building next door. They also purchased the adjacent vacant lot. While the garage and the lot don't have any apparent historic relevance, the double-wide building has a plaque on its facade that suggests it's got an interesting past.

Former dental manufacturing company

The website for the apartment building located at 221 S. 12th St. boasts the residence’s proximity to Philadelphia’s tourist-friendly historical district.  However, the building stands on a site with its own storied past.  Said past begins in the mid-19th Century, when, according to G.M. Hopkins’ 1875 Philadelphia Atlas, this location was occupied by a Young Man’s Christian Association (YMCA). 

It’s Fun to Stay at the YMCA in 1875

From Christian to Catholic, the building became home to the Philopatrian Literary Society in 1879.  The Philopatrian Hall was used as a center for Catholic-centered community activities.  The Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute describes its organization as originally founded to protect the growing demographic from ethnic violence at the hands of Protestants.  Over time, its mission evolved to include the development of the city’s Catholic School system.  The organization also outgrew its surroundings just north of 12th & Locust.  By 1892, the Philopatrian was sold to one Samuel S. White, whose dental manufacturing company was already well on its way to global success, according to Workshop Of the World.  The image below shows an ad for the burgeoning company, dated 1867.

At least the mural is sweet

Today, the most significant thing about the northeast corner of 13th & Locust is on the building next to it, which casts a stunning mural against the busy intersection.  But the corner lot itself has a compelling invisible history.  According to The Gayborhood Guru, the site was occupied by rowhouses until the early 1860s.  It was at this juncture that the growing College of Physicians of Philadelphia used an endowment from Dr. Thomas Mütter to build the two-story institute of learning.  Indeed, in addition to housing a lecture hall and medical library, the first floor of the building served as the first home of the Mütter Museum.  The image below, taken from G.M. Hopkins Philadelphia Atlas, identifies the building as a Medical College in 1875.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 1875

The Gayborhood Guru notes that the building had been outfitted with a third floor by 1883.  The image below shows the expanded Medical College in 1900.